Jul 31, 2016

200 Years of Frankenstein

"The night when Mary Shelley,
Lord Byron and their cohorts
gathered together at Lake Geneva
to tell ghost stories." (BBC)
2016 has been a year for looking back at 1816. The year 1816 was unusually cold, following a series of major volcanic eruptions. Here in 2016 we are setting records for high temperatures as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels continue to climb.

A Storm in the Stars
In 1816, a very young Mary Shelley began writing the story Frankenstein. How are we, as readers some 200 years later, to look upon this story?

That dismal summer of 1816, Mary's party had been gathering near a fireplace to read stories about "apparitions of spectres, revenants, phantoms" and Mary took up the challenge to write her own horror story founded upon a "supernatural occurrence".

Supernatural Occurrence
"the golem ... has served as
inspiration for such varied figures
as Mary Shelley’s monster in her
novel Frankenstein [and] a
frightening character in the
television series The X-Files"
What was the foundational "supernatural occurrence" in Frankenstein? In his narration of his own life story, the young physiologist Mr. Frankenstein tells us that he was "animated by an almost supernatural enthusiasm" during his study of "the principle of life".

Many interpretations of the Frankenstein story accept a technical absurdity: that Mr. Frankenstein, working in the back room of his house, some time in the 1700s, made some sort of deep scientific discovery that suddenly allowed him to bring to life an artificial being that had been constructed from an assortment of materials obtained from the "dissecting room and the slaughter-house". Traveling further down that fantastic interpretive path, we must assume that this new-born artificial life form was able to go out into the wild, survive, learn to think, read and speak and then magically track down and torment Frankenstein and his family in some crazed attempt to have a complementary female creature manufactured to serve as its mate and the foundation of a new species.

the living dead
It is far easier for me to adopt an alternative reading Frankenstein and view Mr. Frankenstein as the 1816 equivalent of someone like James Holmes or Seung-Hui Cho. I view Mr. Frankenstein as a young man who descends into a psychotic state in which he imagines that he created a "monster" that killed his brother (William). Frankenstein is an unreliable narrator who ultimately finds a dozen ways to say that it was he, Victor Frankenstein himself who murdered Henry Clerval, although Shelley seems to have used some sort of supernaturally animated revenant or golem as the instrument of destruction.

the horror!
Here in 2016, 200 years after Mary created her story and abandoned it to future generations of literary propagandists, the story of Frankenstein has taken on a life of its own. There is no shortage of commentators who insist that we all view Frankenstein as a cautionary tale about the dangers of science and irresponsible scientists. Case in point: earlier this year, Michael Aeschliman took the 200th anniversary of the story Frankenstein as an opportunity to warn us about "scientific hubris". As Professor Emeritus of English Literature, Aeschliman "informs" his readers that "new advances in genetic-engineering techniques" are the reality of Frankenstein’s fictitious power to animate dead material.

The Rossi Intervention
In case you are reluctant to trust an English teacher's account of the scientific implications of Frankenstein, Aeschliman cites as a scientifically trained compadre in anti-scientism Robert Pollack, himself a scientist with fringe views who since the 1970s has delighted in crying "wolf!" within the house of genetics research.

Dealing with the unintended deleterious consequences of technology has always been part of human existence. Global warming provides a good example.

Just follow the money. We've watched while people who make a living selling fossil fuels spend decades denying the scientifically predictable consequences of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Many politicians refuse to make sensible laws such as imposing a carbon tax. Rather than work to fix the global warning problem, we have "environmental activists" who irrationally fear gene modified foods.

Fru'wu: Our Alien Prometheus
Science Fiction?
For me, Frankenstein is a lame (almost unreadable) horror story that feels cobbled together from dead and lifeless textual fragments. The major character (Victor Frankenstein) is not animated as a convincing depiction of a scientist. The mention of science and chemistry in the early part of the story leads us nowhere and that tentative, promising thread is abandoned early. To play the science fiction game, an author has to try to write a story that can entertain a scientifically literate audience. In my view, Frankenstein is anti-science fiction, possibly classifiable as cynical capitalistic exploitation of ancient religious mythology and some people's morbid fascination with psychotic serial murderers.

Professor Skyriotus
My Tribute
What if a real science fiction story had actually been written in 1816? In our Reality, science fiction did not come into existence as a specialized literary genre until the 20th century. However, in an alternate Reality, the science fiction genre might have been started sooner. As my 2016 tribute to Frankenstein, I've begun to record my imagined version of the first science fiction story in the Ekcolir Reality.

Next: fun with a reasoning robot
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Shelly Bot

More evidence that the story of Frankenstein has taken on a life of its own: Shelly Bot.

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